Zimbabwe: The Nature of Power

4 April 2008

Zimbabwe: The Nature of Power

 By Gwynne Dyer

It has been a vivid demonstration of how power really works. A week ago, Robert Mugabe was still the undisputed ruler of Zimbabwe. He was 84, and he had reduced the country to ruin: four out of five adults are unemployed, inflation is running (officially) at over 100,000 percent, and one-third of the population has fled abroad in search of work, mostly to South Africa. Yet nobody in his own party, Zanu-PF, dared to question his rule, the police and the army remained loyal, and ordinary people lived in quiet desperation.

The silent submission of the population owed a good deal to the brutality of the police, but what can explain the loyalty of his own colleagues in the party and the army? After all, Zimbabwe is their country, too, and nobody likes to see their homeland dragged in the dirt. Moreover, it was all Mugabe’s fault, brought about by policies that he freely chose to pursue. He is not ten feet tall and he has no magical powers. Why did they obey him?

They obeyed him because he has been in power for 28 years, longer than the great majority of Zimbabweans have been alive. (The average Zimbabwean woman is dead at 34, the lowest life expectancy in the world. Men make it to 37.) They obeyed him because he was the hero of the independence struggle and an icon of African liberation.

Most of all, they obeyed him because his rule was apparently the only thing that kept them out of the desperate poverty in which most Zimbabweans live. Powerful people who defied him were rarely killed, but they were cut off from the flow of wealth and had a very hard time of it. So the regime cruised on almost unaffected by the ruin of the country, and Mugabe even felt secure enough to allow more or less free elections on 29 March.

He had been under heavy pressure by the African Union to clean up his act, since Zimbabwe has become a profound embarrassment to better-run African states, and in particular to neighbouring South Africa. The farther away the potential investors are, the harder they find it to tell the difference between one African country and another, and Zimbabwe’s bad reputation was hurting the whole region. So Mugabe made what seemed to be a harmless concession.

Typically, in Zimbabwean elections, the cities vote against Mugabe, but the countryside, where 75 percent of the people live, votes for him. At least, it seems to. Rural people are more easily intimidated, opposition observers can easily be chased away from isolated rural polling stations, and many things can happen to the ballot boxes on the way to Harare to be counted.

Mugabe was so confident that he didn’t even send out Zanu-PF’s storm-troopers, the so-called “war veterans” (most of whom were not born during the liberation war), to frighten people into voting the right way. But he had made one crucial miscalculation: in response to pressure from the African Union, he agreed to let the vote be counted locally, with the results posted up outside each polling station.

So the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC, sent members to photograph the results at more than 8,000 polling stations, and it suddenly got very hard to manipulate the returns at a central location. And it turned out — maybe it had been true at every previous election, too — that around half the population had not voted for Zanu-PF despite all the pressures.

Mugabe’s party has already lost its majority in parliament, but the real transformation has been in Zanu-PF itself. Suddenly, the “old man” is not the object of fear and adulation any more. In the eyes of some senior party people and their military and police colleagues, Mugabe has become a bargaining counter.

If the jig is really up, maybe they could trade Mugabe and power for a peaceful retirement with no awkward questions about where their wealth came from. Of course, Mugabe would also have to be allowed an honourable retirement himself — but as one of the last heroes of Africa’s independence generation, he was guaranteed that anyway.

Or maybe they should declare martial law, annul the election and push Mugabe aside — or leave him out front as a figurehead and flak-catcher. He must be very disconcerted, after 28 years of absolute power, to discover that it was just a confidence trick all along.

But the game is not over yet. While both those options remain open, the party elders and the security forces have opted for the moment to play more or less by the rules: a run-off election in two weeks between Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

That gives them time to deploy the bully-boys, re-intimidate the rural population, and pull off a second-round victory for Mugabe. Or, if that strategy doesn’t look like it’s going to work (for once people have lost their fear, it’s much harder to get them back in the mood), then they still have time to exercise Option A or Option B.

So what has this episode taught us about the nature of power? That the more absolute and illegitimate it is, the easier it is for it to dissolve overnight. And that democracy is a good solvent.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“He had…counted”)